Mulan has long been viewed as the sort of bastard idiot child in the long line of animated savants Disney churned out starting with 1989's The Little Mermaid. Coming after an unbroken string of critical and box office successes like Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Hercules, and coming right before another big triumph, Tarzan, Mulan has more often than not been dismissed as an outright failure with little to recommend it. While it certainly is not a masterpiece, it's a widely undervalued little gem in the Disney pantheon, with one of the more striking visual designs of any Disney animated feature, and with a middling to excellent song score by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel, who, if not storming the Top 40 gates, at least tried to find their own vernacular without mimicking Alan Menken and his various lyricists, Disney's preferred musical go-to guy for animated features.
The story, purportedly based on real life fifth century events, finds Mulan, a lovely misfit Chinese girl, adopting a male alter ego to fight in the Emperor's war against The Huns, in a noble attempt to keep her lame and elderly father out of the battle (one male from each family needed to report for duty). This is probably the gist of why Mulan didn't fare as well at the box office as did its Disney siblings. For better or worse, you knew going in that features like Beauty and the Beast and Pocahontas were geared toward little girls, while Lion King and Hercules were aimed at boys. But how to market something with a female heroine dressed as a male, something which by its very nature precluded much blatant love interest (even Disney isn't ready for a "La Cage" moment, animated or not), at least until the final scenes? Add to this predicament some passing references to "cross dressing" and "drag shows," not to mention a scene with Mulan's army buddies dressing up as women to storm a barricaded fortress, and you had the makings for a radical right reaction akin to the Tinky-Winky "scandal" fostered by Jerry Falwell.
All of this aside, Mulan emerges as a colorful and engaging romp through the sort of mythical history ride that Disney does so well in its theme park attractions. We get a wise Chinese emperor, evil invading hoardes, a trio of goofy and lovable human sidekicks, as well as the necessary non-human ones, in this case a wisecracking dragon named Mushu (voiced by Eddie Murphy, pretty much warming up for Donkey in Shrek), and a mute cricket, sort of Jiminy by way of Marcel Marceau. Both the character design and backgrounds are beautifully rendered, obviously modeled on ancient Chinese silk drawings and etchings. The abundant use of red becomes a recurring motif throughout the film and lends its palette a beautiful throughline that is augmented by the complementary pastels and other hues surrounding it.
Voice work in this feature is also singularly excellent, with an array of Asian-American talent like George Takei, Pat Morita and Ming-Na alongside a nice variety of other voice artists like Harvey Fierstein, Miguel Ferrer and the aforementioned Murphy. Disney regular Lea Solanga provides the singing voice for Mulan (including on the beautiful "Reflection," one of the more gorgeous ballads to emerge from the Disney animated canon), while none other than Donny Osmond sings for Captain Shang, Mulan's commander and eventual love interest once her real gender is revealed. The inimitable June Foray is also on hand as Mulan's spunky Grandmother, sounding just a little like a geriatric Rocky the Flying Squirrel.
There are a few by-the-numbers qualms I have with the production, and they deal with character design. Mulan herself is virtually a carbon copy of Pocahontas, and her horse could equally be a black version of Hercules' dopey Pegasus. The ancestral spectral elders in this film also seem patently derivative of Hercules' Gods and Goddesses, down to their transparent bluish-white outlines. The fact that so much effort went into the design of the film as a whole leaves me slightly scratching my head about these failures of innovation, if not "imagineering."
As is the case with most of Disney's straight-to-video sequel knockoffs, Mulan II is an agreeable enough timefiller with little of the energy and imagination of its progenitor. This episode picks up a month after the first film ends, with Mulan and Shang (now a General) getting engaged and being enlisted to transport the Emperor's three daughters to a northern province where arranged marriages for them will hopefully engender a lasting peace. The fact that Mulan's three army buddies are in attendance should be a major fireworks laden clue that the royal siblings may end up with different suitors by the end of the film. A subplot involving dragon Mushu (this time voiced by Mark Moseley, doing a pretty bad Murphy impersonation) has the devious little imp trying to break up Mulan and Shang so that he can remain her guardian (if she marries, the groom's family guardian takes over for the couple).
While there's nothing particularly bad about any of this, it's just lethargic compared to the original feature. Though character design is strong throughout, the backgrounds are just pallid imitations of the carefully crafted originals, and seem slapdash by comparison. The song score this time is by Broadway dance arranger and sometimes composer ("Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Violet") Jeanine Tesori, and it simply lacks the melodic punch of Wilder's work from the first feature.
It does get a bit trying seeing Disney continually repackage their animated features in Gold Editions, Special Editions, Special Two Disc Editions, and any other variation they can think of. If you already have Mulan (the first edition or the re-released two disk Special Edition), you probably don't need to double or triple dip for this new packaging. If you've never seen Mulan, this relatively cheaply priced new release makes the first film in its Special Edition available with the bonus, if you can call it that, of the sequel.
By comparison (and again as usual), the direct-to-video sequel comes off as the ugly stepsister, with some pretty brief and shallow extras, including a voiceover short (which finesses the non-involvement of Eddie Murphy pretty badly), "The World of Mulan," a tour of Chinese history, four deleted scenes, a simple minded guessing game with Mushu miming characters you're supposed to divine, and a music video by (in Disney's own words) "pop sensation Atomic Kitten." Stop laughing.